A transgender student has been allowed to join a lawsuit between a Christian professor and Shawnee State University over the Ohio university’s requirement that faculty refer to students using pronouns consistent with their self-asserted gender identity. Professor Nicholas Meriwether is suing the university for disciplining him because he declined to use a feminine courtesy title for a biologically male student, though he did offer to refer to the student by name only with no gender-specific title. The court’s order allowing the transgender student to become a party to the suit said the university would not adequately represent the interests of transgender students in the litigation. —S.W.
In a court filing last week, the U.S. Department of Justice gave its support to Vermont parents and parochial high school students whom the state barred from a program that pays tuition for high school students to take college courses. While open to public school students, homeschool students, and students attending nonreligious private schools, Vermont’s dual enrollment program excludes students at private religious schools. The students and their families say the state is discriminating against them on the basis of their religion, and the Justice Department agrees. Its statement of interest in the case emphasizes that “the state’s eligibility requirements are not religion-neutral” but impermissibly and unconstitutionally single out religious students.
The Vermont case is the latest in an increasing number of religious liberty filings by the Justice Department under President Donald Trump. In May 2017, the president ordered all executive departments “to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.” Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions followed up with a memorandum on religious liberty principles in October 2017 and the establishment of a Religious Liberty Task Force and the Place to Worship initiative in July 2018.
Since then, the government has gone from filing one friend-of-the-court brief or statement of interest per year in religious liberty cases to five per year. The number of formal investigations by the Justice Department has also doubled from seven to 14 per year, and the agency’s Civil Rights Division handles many more matters that are resolved prior to becoming formal investigations. —Steve West